Coin motifs and civic pride
This article first appeared in The Celator, Vol. 11, No. 12, December 1997, p. 22.
It is interesting, from our perspective, to examine the images that
appear on coinage of a particular place from century to century.
Examining coins of the Greek and Roman worlds, one will see that, over time, the
iconography of their coinage changed dramatically in its approach.
Whereas early issues of the Roman Republic or Greek city-states reflected
societies absorbed in their relationship with the divine, the later period in both
cultures is anthropocentric. That is, man (and specifically the ruling class) was
considered to be the center of the universe.
As these changes in society
were evolving, people were also developing a new sense of civic association.
Naturally, that growing sense of place and belonging, which we know
today as nationalism, had its icons as well. The familiar SPQR of the Roman
Senate developed into a sort of logo that endures yet today. Any modern
visitor to the Eternal City of Rome cannot escape the familiar stamp
which may be seen not only on ancient monuments, but even on 20th century
manhole covers. Greek cities also had their icons, and some remain as
powerful as the Roman SPQR.
These civic icons were often
used on coins, because the very nature of coinage required the backing and
prestige of its issuing authority. In the case of Athens, the icon was Athena's wise and dependable owl. Places that figured prominently in important
myths often chose related imageslike Hercules at Thasos or Pegasos at Corinth.
Other cities chose to herald their civic pride with commercial icons. The
famous amphorae of Chios, for example, adorned many of that
The icons of these places, like
the SPQR of Rome, did not appear solely on coinage. They were more
deeply imbedded images that may be seen on a variety of surviving artifacts
from the ancient world. One of the most closely related to coinage is the
amphora stamp. Producers of pottery, and particularly amphorae, often
used coins as a stamp of identification, and presumably of qualitysort of like
the Levi label on today's jeans. They must also have engraved their own
punches with coin motifs, because some stamps bear clearly recognizable coin images yet lack essential details. Of course, there was no way of stopping an industrious entrepeneur from stamping his own amphorae with a coin
from Thasos, Rhodes or Knidos. How many Levi jeans are made in China?
While numismatists have
produced sylloges for coins (SNG), the vase lovers of the world have recorded the ex
tant pottery in Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum (CVA). Any casual
perusal of the volumes (there are a great many) will reveal stamped pottery
of one form or another. There is actually quite a bit of published
material about these stamped vases, Virginia Grace being one of the most
published experts in this field (see V.R. Grace, "Stamped Amphora Handles found
in 1931 and 1932", Hesperia, 3, 1934, pp. 197-310 and "The die used for
Amphora Stamps", Hesperia, 4, 1935,
pp. 421-9; also Hesperia 22, 1953, pp. 116-28).
Admittedly, amphorae were not
the only stamped vases, and commercialism was not the only motivation
for impressing designs. South Italian pottery sometimes used coin motifs
or impresses for decoration. During the late fourth and early third
centuries BC, a style of black glazed Kylix (wide drinking cup) was made with
the central device cast from Syracusan decadrachms of both the Euainetos
and Kimon types. Although this is perhaps the most famous example of the
phenomenon, there were others. Still, even here, an element of civic or
at least regional pride seems to be present.
Today, when we look at an ancient coin and ponder the significance of
its design, we should keep in mind the ageless human need for
recognition and the tendancy to reflect civic
pride through symbols and images. Perhaps a millenium in the future,
collectors will be marvelling over digital renderings of the Eiffel Tower or the
St. Louis Arch. What do you suppose they will make of the Big Apple?